Wine Vocabulary - All Those Funny Words

A friendly copy editor came by the other day, as copy editors sometimes do, with a logical question that wasn't easy to answer.

"I don't know that much about wine," she said. "But I have a little trouble relating to something that you say tastes like 'old leather' or 'melting road tar' - and you seem to like it."

She's got a point.

One of the most challenging things about judging wine - and telling other people about it - is that so much of its appeal is to our senses of smell and taste.

Since we humans don't use smell or taste nearly as much, or as effectively, as we do sight, hearing and even touch, we lack a well-defined, precise vocabulary to describe aromas and flavors in terms that mean the same thing to everyone.

It isn't easy to do that accurately, vividly and effectively without drifting into intolerable vagueness, dropping into incomprehensible jargon or using the kind of precious language that makes people think you're a wine snob.

Furthermore, a lot of the terms that most accurately describe frequently occurring scents in wine are not words that we usually associate with edible things. Oak, cedar and pine, for instance. Moss, leaves and grass. Yes, even tar and leather.

(Carrying this to its logical extreme, in 18th century France the aroma of fine Burgundy was more than once likened to raw sewage, to put it relatively delicately. This was intended as a compliment, something that might be difficult to comprehend unless we consider the way the French love strong cheese.)

It's also important to understand that these scents and tastes rarely dominate the wine. Typically they add a small but significant element to a larger pattern, as a colored thread might highlight woven cloth or a French horn's theme add texture to an orchestral chorus.

In other words, the hints of chocolate and coffee in some California red wines and the nuances of coconut, figs and dates in oak-aged Chardonnay don't make the wine taste like a milkshake or fruit salad; they are subtle, often elusive parts of a larger whole.

That "tarry" quality in a California Merlot that puzzled my friend, the editor, is not an unpleasant scent to me but one of great nostalgia, evoking memories of youthful hikes along the edge of country roads on hot summer days.

The French even have a name for it - gout de goudron - according to Frank Schoonmaker's Encyclopedia of Wine, which notes that the smell, "far from disagreeable ... is usually one of the characteristics of a fine red wine made from very ripe grapes."

The smell of old leather comes up often in well-aged red wine. I find it pleasant, too, more like fine old books in leather bindings than well-used shoes.

The scents of wine come from several sources. The fruity smell of young wines comes directly from the grapes, with woody and other organic aromas added if the wine was aged in oak.

Fine, aged wines add the most complex (and sometimes un-winelike) scents, which some wine tasters call "bouquet," as the result of gradual chemical reactions in the wine. Less pleasant changes in odor and taste occur if the wine is poorly or carelessly made or spoils with excess age.

Just for fun, I scanned back over years of my tasting notes and several good wine books to get an idea of the breadth of vocabulary wine tasters have used.

Emile Peynaud's "Le Gout de Vin" ("The Taste of Wine," quoted in Robert M. Parker Jr.'s "Wines of the Rhone Valley and Provence") divided wine aromas into nine principal categories:

Animal odors, smells of game, beef and venison; balsamic odors, smells of pine trees, resin and vanilla; woody odors, smells of new wood of oak barrels; chemical odors, smells of acetone, mercaptan (skunks or natural gas), yeasts, hydrogen sulfide (rotten eggs), lactic and fermentation odor; spicy odors, smells of pepper, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, truffles, anise and mint; empyreumatic (creosotes and oils) odors, smells of creme brulee, smoke, toast, leather and coffee; floral odors, smells of flowers, violets, roses, lilacs, jasmine; fruity odors, smells of blackcurrants, raspberries, cherries, plums, apricots, peaches, figs; and vegetal odors, smells of herbs, tea, mushrooms and vegetables.

Other frequently occurring scents include apples (a characteristic of Chardonnay and Riesling grapes); green olives, green peppers, even asparagus (typical of inexpensive red wines from some cool regions); walnuts and pecans (desirable in Sherry, a flaw in wines oxidized with age); vinegar (a breath is common in Beaujolais, more than a breath is a fatal flaw in any wine); and chalk or steel (reminiscent of licking a clean pebble or knife blade, the trademark of French Chablis and some other acidic Chardonnays).

Young wines are usually simple and straightforward, offering uncomplicated smells of grapes and fresh fruit.

It's bottle age that brings about the chemical changes that provide unusual and (one hopes) delicious nuances that cry out for descriptive terms.

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